One year after Goodwill worker crushed, nonprofit faces more lawsuits, new safety probes

A year after one of its employees was crushed to death, Sacramento’s Goodwill operation is facing new lawsuits from former workers and additional government scrutiny over its safety practices.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal-OSHA, recently opened at least three more complaint investigations into alleged health and safety issues at three separate Goodwill locations in the Sacramento region.

On Friday, a former Goodwill employee who witnessed the death last year of 26-year-old Abraham Nicholas Garza filed a lawsuit against the giant nonprofit in Sacramento Superior Court. Dave Goudie, 56, a commercial truck driver who repeatedly had warned Goodwill managers about unsafe working conditions at its Franklin Boulevard plant, accused his former employer of defamation and whistleblower retaliation.

Goodwill fired Goudie last year and has publicly blamed him for “negligence” in the fatal accident, even though Cal-OSHA issued the nonprofit a record-breaking fine.

“The days of the Goodwill Industries in Sacramento thinking they can get away with throwing their employees into harm’s way and getting away with it are over,” Goudie told The Bee, referring to his ordeal as a “diabolical smear campaign.”

The developments are the culmination of a stormy year for Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley & Northern Nevada, whose gross annual revenue hit $68 million in 2015. The rapidly expanding organization is one of 13 independent Goodwill member organizations based in California and affiliated with Goodwill Industries International.

Earlier this year, the Sacramento-based organization was issued six violations and $106,675 in fines in connection with Garza’s death on Sept. 30, 2016 – the highest OSHA penalty ever levied against a Goodwill operation nationwide in the past decade, according to a Bee analysis of federal data.

Sacramento Goodwill, whose far-flung network of stores, outlets and Donation Xpress centers extends into Nevada, has had significantly more OSHA cases opened in the last 10 years than any of the other Goodwill chapters headquartered in California, The Bee’s examination showed. Sacramento had 36 cases opened in the past decade, compared with an average of about five for the other 12 Goodwill operations based in the state.

In the last three months, complaints to Cal-OSHA prompted the state’s workplace safety agency to open new cases at Goodwill facilities on Alhambra and Riverside boulevards and Rush River Drive, according to state records. The agency also opened an investigation in April at the Date Avenue plant, which had a similar compactor operation to the one that killed Garza.

The case at the Date Avenue warehouse and outlet was closed in June without any violations identified or fines levied. Cal-OSHA spokesman Peter Melton said he could not provide details on the open cases because complaints are confidential.

However, Goodwill spokeswoman Karen McClaflin said Friday the latest Cal-OSHA complaints were about minor problems, and were quickly remedied.

“It was almost like a fix-it ticket,” she said.

In one instance, she said, a donation trailer on Alhambra Boulevard became too hot for a worker. She said the other recent Cal-OSHA complaints involved overcrowding and acceptance of too many goods at two Donation Xpress centers, virtually a staple in many Sacramento area neighborhoods and strip malls. McClaflin also identified a fourth recent Cal-OSHA complaint that has not been posted yet by the agency, in which employees were having to get drinking water from the restroom, she said.

“We have put water service in place and filed the necessary paperwork,” she stated in an email. “These are common citations for all businesses and are quickly remedied, but the process of Cal-OSHA getting them posted on their website and then removed takes months.”

McClaflin, also Goodwill’s chief development officer, said Friday she could not comment on Goudie’s lawsuit because officials had not seen it yet.

Goodwill is appealing four of the citations issued in March, which make up most of the monetary penalties assessed after Garza’s death.

The young worker was killed on the Franklin Boulevard front loading dock while trying to help Goudie check the alignment of a heavy empty bin that was being maneuvered to mate with the compactor. Cal-OSHA determined that both Goudie and Garza were standing in the “zone of danger” when the truck’s driver released the cable securing the bin, and Garza’s head was crushed between the equipment.

Goudie said the organization initially placed him on paid administrative leave to deal with the grief and trauma but later fired him, saying he had violated safety procedures. Goudie has vigorously disputed that claim, saying there effectively were no safety policies and procedures.

Cal-OSHA contends that Goodwill was at fault. It has accused the group of not training employees in the operation of compactors and of flagrantly failing to develop safety procedures for those who work around dangerous equipment.

In his lawsuit, which also seeks punitive damages, Goudie contends he made numerous attempts – verbally and in writing – to alert his immediate managers and top executives to safety hazards. Instead of being heeded, he contends, he was fired and publicly blamed for the very kind of tragedy he was hoping to prevent.

The lawsuit contends that Goodwill’s “defamatory statements” and shifting of blame caused Goudie to suffer “embarrassment, humiliation, severe emotional distress, shunning, anguish, fear, loss of employment and employability, and significant economic loss in the form of lost wages and future earnings.”

Goudie told The Bee he believes that Garza’s death was preventable and “completely unnecessary,” and that he wound up being punished for cooperating with Cal-OSHA’s investigation.

Garza left behind a 7-year-old son.

In an unrelated court case, another former Goodwill worker, Desiree Moorer, said she was injured in a job training program this year at the Franklin Boulevard site after working in “a dangerous building with dangerous equipment.” Moorer, 55, who is representing herself in court, told The Bee she was disabled and sought training through Goodwill to become a custodian.

According to her lawsuit, which also names the California Department of Rehabilitation, Moorer claims she suffered a cervical strain in January while trying to operate a faulty buffing machine on a floor with holes. The machine “went out of whack” and caused her left-side injury, the lawsuit states. Moorer also contends that electrical wires could be seen hanging from the ceiling, and the building often flooded.

“They were horrible conditions,” she told The Bee. “The public needs to be aware of these dangerous places.”

Federal records show that the Franklin location was the most frequent target of Cal-OSHA safety inspections and complaint investigations over the past decade. The site includes a large outlet store, where goods are sold by the pound, along with a Donation Xpress center, warehouse and transportation office.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom